The sun has just risen over the rim of the desert. The moon hangs over the dry, treeless mountains. It’s chilly. I hunker down in my windbreaker. It’s deathly quiet, except for the occasional far away rumble of an aircraft engine, wafting over the desert like distant thunder.
The soil is chalky white, populated only by low scrubs, chamisa, sage, and a few hearty clumps of grass. I’m at inner pylon 2, perhaps the loneliest spot on the planet, but a front row seat for the action to come.
The pylons mark out the four different race courses across the desert landscape north of KSTD, the Reno-Stead airport, 10 miles north of Reno. Each pylon is manned by a crew of pylon judges to observe the race aircraft and ensure that they stay on course.
“Cutting a pylon,” flying to the inside of the course, is breaking the rules and is penalized by docking race time. Cutting a pylon can cost you a race.
Credentialed media, mostly photographers, are also permitted on the pylons, as are race volunteers. As a writer, I was the only one of my kind at this remote site. I have a humble camera with a normal lens. The shooters all have massive telephotos. As a man, having smaller equipment than those around me makes me feel vaguely inferior.
But it’s worth it. Being at a pylon is as close to the action as you can get without being in a cockpit.
(Spoiler alert: Reno National Championship Air Race pylons are nothing to look at. Banish any vision of towering inflatable orange-and-white Red Bull pylons from your mind. The course markers at Reno are basically 50-gallon drums atop phone poles.)
From the direction of the distant control tower come a symphony of engines. Soft and rumbling at first, then growing in crescendo to a fierce growl. The first race is on!
A flash of light off canopy glass as the first racer lifts off. Then the next, then the next, then the next. Like a swarm of angry wasps they turn off the runway heading and make a beeline for us. Low to the ground they come, their shadows chasing them across the desert floor, and banking sharply, right wing high to the sky, the first plane streaks around the pylon and dashes out of sight. Then the next plane, followed by a dense pack of three maneuvering for the lead, the pitch of their engine’s whine shifting as they approach, pass, then recede.
An aerial ballet plays out above me as plane after plane wheels above, sun glinting off their canopies, each a fleeting miniature solar eclipse as they soar over the pylon, momentarily blocking out the sun.
A wave of envy sweeps through me as the race planes cartwheel overhead. My feet planted firmly in the dust, my spirit takes to the sky, chasing the planes around the course.